CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Gigabit Cities Live 2016 -- At an event dedicated to the topic of Gigabit Cities, Charlotte CIO Jeff Stovall stood out as the guy NOT talking mostly about the importance of high-speed broadband access.
His relative nonchalance about gigabit speeds may stem from the fact that Charlotte is already blessed to be a designated gigabit city by not one but two major fiber access network builders -- AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG). But it seems to come more from experience in dealing with the realities of both local politics and economic development.
To be fair, Stovall does see a gigabit network as vital to Charlotte's future -- he ranked it as an eight on a scale of ten in importance -- but he sees it as one of the critical pieces in a broader ecosystem that has to include elements such as a well-trained workforce and solid infrastructure. And more than most folks here for Light Reading's Gigabit Cities event, the Charlotte CIO expressed concern about investing in all the necessary pieces of an information technology infrastructure and sustaining that investment over time.
Stovall, whose IT experience includes overseeing the integration of IT systems for Sprint Nextel in the post-merger years, has been CIO for Charlotte's Innovation and Technology department for eight years now, and he sees no single element of the overall ecosystem as enough, including the network.
"You want to have all of those things working together -- demographics, education, and culture. That is what adds the strength and the diversity for economic development," he said in a fireside chat session Tuesday with Light Reading Senior Editor Mari Silbey. One of the city's priorities as fiber is built into its neighborhoods will be focusing on making sure broadband is used to enhance social mobility, he said.
"Charlotte has the same number of households that make $25,000 as make more than $100,000," he noted. "Those poorer households are not prioritizing Gigabit fiber, they are trying to survive. We need to look at how can we bring [broadband access] to the people that need it the most" so it can be used in building new skills and capabilities, enhancing public education and attracting new facilities and new jobs.
That doesn’t mean Charlotte isn't also focusing on economic development, however. The city is the second largest in the country when it comes to the financial sector, Stovall says, and has actively worked to attract tech finance companies that might be drawn out of Silicon Valley and into an area with a much more reasonable cost of living.
On the very day Stovall was talking, those efforts were dealt a serious blow by factors well beyond his control. PayPal, which had planned to relocate a facility to Charlotte, bringing an expected 400 jobs, abruptly cancelled those plans, in light of the North Carolina state legislature's passage of a bill that prevents municipalities from adopting anti-discrimination policies to ban discrimination based on gender identity.
Perhaps ironically, it was a Charlotte ordinance allowing transgender individuals to use public restrooms based on gender identity that prompted the controversial action by the legislature. Stovall said the city remains committed to diversity and doing all it can to protect the rights of all of its citizens.
In addition to finance, Charlotte also is a hub of transportation logistics, an industry that Stovall says is the city's largest, employing 130,000 people compared to the 60,000 that work in the financial sector. As the city looks to embed technology in ways that benefit industry, it is particularly focusing on ways to streamline the movement of freight and goods through the Charlotte area, Stovall said. Charlotte entered the US Department of Transportation's smart city challenge and made it through the first round of cuts before falling out of competition. Many of the ideas it developed as part of that process will still make sense, he said.
"Connected cars, machine-to-machine communications -- all of that can be used to get freight and goods to their destination faster," he said, and also to address the additional traffic that Charlotte's rapid growth has created. Stovall headed the team that prepared his city's information technology in the run-up to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, including preparation of its airport to handle the expected extra traffic.
"The airport is now one of the busiest," he says. "We have the equivalent of a Democratic National Convention every Thursday."
Being able to better handle that traffic benefits not only Charlotte but the surrounding area in both North and South Carolina, as business growth spills over.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading